Considering the size of the two teams, it is something of a surprise that this weekend’s meeting between Real Madrid and Juventus is the first in a Champions League final for 19 years.
Back in 1998, a Predrag Mijatović goal was enough to give the Spanish giants a narrow victory at the Amsterdam Arena, more than making up for a quarter-final defeat to Juve two years earlier. Since then, both have made the final, but never in the same year.
Far more of the meetings – and far more of the opportunities for cult enemies to arise – have come in the competition’s earlier rounds. Indeed, the pair have been drawn together five times since the 1998 final – twice in the group stages and three times in the knockout rounds.
When I spoke to journalist, author and Real Madrid supporter Javier Aznar about the fixture, he proceeded to give me a list of Juve players who have left their mark on Madrid fans for different reasons.
These ranged from Michele Padovano (“He said he used to smoke like 10 cigarettes per day and he scored a goal that kicked us out in ‘95”), Alessandro Del Piero (“responsible for destroying the career (and the waist) of Fernando Hierro”) and Hasan Salihamidzic (“One of our worst enemies since his days in Bayern. I think he played for Juventus just to keep fucking with us”).
However one man got a much shorter response – a simple “I mean, come on”. That man was Marcelo Zalayeta.
For a man who played more than 100 times as a striker for one of Europe’s biggest teams, the Uruguayan was never the most prolific in front of goal. However, despite failing to reach the 20-goal mark in Serie A, he made far more of an impression in Europe. This was especially true in the 2002/03 season, when he scored the winner to eliminate Barcelona, only to then miss a crucial penalty in Juventus’ final defeat to AC Milan.
“Everyone who ever scored against Barcelona, even in a friendly game, is a hero for a Real Madrid supporter,” Aznar says, but that maybe changed two years later when Real Madrid took on Juventus over two legs in the last 16.
Juve had been almost impossible to break down, conceding just one goal while topping their group, but they had scored only half a dozen themselves in the process. For that reason, Madrid were cautiously optimistic after Iván Helguera’s goal at the Bernabéu gave them a first-leg victory.
The Real Madrid squad was packed with galacticos, with Raúl, Ronaldo, Roberto Carlos, Figo and Zinedine Zidane all starting at the Stadio Delle Alpi, but there was still a fair bit of defensive fragility. They hadn’t replaced Claude Makélélé, and January arrival Thomas Gravesen was – remarkably – not the solution to all of their problems.
Sure enough, they were unable to hold out, with David Trezeguet taking the game to extra-time. But even then, for Zalayeta to be the man to make the crucial difference was unexpected to say the least.
“I don’t want to disrepect Zalayeta, but he used to play for Sevilla on loan and he didn´t cause a great impression in La Liga,” Aznar says.
“We always fear and respect Bayern, Juventus and Barça, no matter when. But we were not expecting a goal like that from him.
“Maybe from Ibra or Del Piero. But, well, this is the beauty of football I guess. When unexpected heroes are born.”
“Ask Belletti,” he adds, pointing to the Barcelona defender’s winner in the 2006 final against Arsenal. The Brazilian hadn’t scored for Barça before that game and he never scored for them after, but he retains iconic status to this day.
Similarly, Zalayeta left Juve two years later, having failed to make an impact in the quarter-final defeat to eventual champions Liverpool. He had an unremarkable few years elsewhere in Italy before seeing out his career back in Uruguay, but he’ll always be the man who scored those winning goals against Real Madrid and Barcelona.
The Champions League has produced plenty of unlikely heroes, from Chelsea’s Fernando Torres in 2012 to Sergi Roberto for Barcelona against PSG just this year, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see another name added to that list sooner rather than later.
This Saturday, in Cardiff, someone has the chance to become the next Zalayeta. Whether that means repeating his goal against Real Madrid or his miss against Milan, someone is sure to write their name into the history books forever.